July 1, 2016
A passion for aviation has helped shape Banker Steel’s growth and success.
In 1997, Don Banker returned to Virginia and raised capital to reopen a shuttered steel plant. The same year, his wife surprised him with a flying lesson for his 40th birthday, hoping it would “get the aviation bug out of his system.”
Instead, those two hours in a Cessna 152 ignited a passion for aviation that became a critical advantage for his fledgling company, Banker Steel, now a $200 million business and the supplier-of-choice for some of the largest construction projects on the East Coast.
Twenty years later, Banker Steel operates a Dassault Falcon 900B out of Virginia’s Lynchburg Regional Airport (LYH), with two full-time pilots, Jones Stanley and Scott Reguin. As the CEO, Banker still is flying.
“Don will come over in the morning and say, ‘Guys, if you don’t mind me flying, it’s probably going to be the best part of my day,’” said Stanley. “He’s an excellent pilot. He has every bit the training we have. Sometimes he flies left seat, sometimes right, but Scott or I are up there [in the cockpit] at all times.”
The Banker Steel Falcon flies about 200 hours a year, with an average of seven or eight project managers, sales-people and engineers on board heading to and from construction sites, so Banker just as often sits in the back and meets with his team in flight.
Colossal Erector Sets
The most frequent trip is from Lynchburg, where Banker Steel has two fabrication plants, to New York City, where the company supplies massive steel trusses for projects such as Barclays Center or Hudson Yards – the largest real estate development in the country.
With a third plant in Orlando, FL, Banker Steel is one of only three steel fabricators on the East Coast that works on projects this large and complex. Each truss, beam or joint is custom made, like giant Erector Set pieces.
The steel travels by truck or rail, but Banker Steel personnel visit the construction sites every week. The company uses the airlines, but Lynchburg is at the end of a commercial air service spoke, so a flight to New York requires first flying south to Charlotte, NC – the only airline connecting point for Lynchburg.
“There are so many trips we could not do commercially,” says Don Banker, who added that his airplane has helped him and his team travel to three or four cities in one day. “Even my first airplane, a Bonanza A36, gave us the ability to fly to smaller airports. There’s no way I could’ve done that [by airline] and built the business at the same time.”
A CEO And a Pilot
Don Banker has spent his entire career in the steel industry. He started working at a steel company in Northern Virginia, then ran an operation in Texas before coming back to the Old Dominion State.
When Banker was learning to fly, Scott Reguin was the flight instructor who helped him earn his instrument rating. Reguin and Stanley had flown together for years at the Freedom Aviation FBO in Lynchburg, and Stanley – a former airline pilot and naval aviator with more than 40,000 hours – flew with Banker as he built time in jets.
“Don always says, ‘I’m a businessman first and a pilot second,’” stated Stanley. “He can fly this airplane just like we fly it, but he asks what we think [about the relative risk of a flight] and if he should let Scott and me take it.”
Banker has often flown in bad conditions, can land in a strong crosswind and knows how to handle icing. But when a flight involves multiple risk factors, such as inclement weather and an unfamiliar airfield or night flying, he’ll usually hand over the controls to Stanley and Reguin.
We don’t really have a long-term schedule, and we don’t have complicated approval procedures. If our IT guy needs to spend time on a job site, he’s on the plane.
“You know, I’ve hired these guys as my professionals, and I typically defer to them,” said Banker.
Fatigue, more often than weather, is the determining risk factor, which is why Banker prefers to fly the leg out from Lynchburg when he’s fresh. After a long day of site visits, he rides in the back with the other passengers.
“There have only been two occasions when I’ve said, ‘I think Scott and I should do this one,’” said Stanley. “He never pushes us. Safety is paramount.”
On a recent winter flight to Teterboro, NJ, Stanley was flying the Falcon and, 10 minutes before the approach was to begin, the field was closed due to heavy snow. Newark, their usual backup airport, was also closed, so Banker and his pilots decided the safest move was to turn around and return to Lynchburg.
“We assume every landing is a go-around. We assume every instrument approach we’re going to miss. We’re prepared for that,” said Stanley.
Big Airplane, Small Operation
Banker Steel’s Falcon is the largest aircraft based at Lynchburg Regional, but the company does not have its own hangar. It shares space with several light jets and turboprops in one of Freedom Aviation’s hangars.
In fact, Stanley and Reguin are Banker Steel’s only “flight department personnel.” They share an office at Freedom Aviation. Two of the FBO’s technicians, Mark Detwiler and Joe Pascale, perform minor maintenance on the Falcon.
“They’ve been to Falcon maintenance school, so they’re trained on the air-plane. They just can’t do heavy maintenance,” said Stanley.
Detwiler and Pascale have fixed circuit breakers, downloaded engine updates, repaired a leaky oil sump and replaced engine filters. Some weeks, there’s nothing to do; other weeks the work could take two days to complete.
“We mostly work on post-flight discrepancies for them,” said Pascale. “We’re limited by our tooling and not having the heavy lifts, but we’ll contact our FSDO and determine what we can and cannot do. That way, Banker Steel doesn’t have to go to the Dassault service center for the little things.”
In addition to Dassault Aircraft Services, Banker Steel uses Chicago Jet Group and Duncan Aviation for scheduled inspections.
As far as scheduling use of the Falcon is concerned, the process is straightforward. “We don’t really have a long-term schedule, and we don’t have complicated [approval] procedures,” said Banker. “If our IT guy needs to spend time on a job site, he’s on the plane.”
Banker Steel’s Falcon 900B makes about one overseas flight a year. With the 2020 certification deadline for FANS 1/A in the North Atlantic approaching, company pilots Jones Stanley and Scott Reguin have been planning a major avionics upgrade for the aircraft.
“We want to have it done before the rush, because with the RVSM deadline, a lot of people waited until the last year, and [maintenance shops] got so full, they weren’t able get the certification in time,” said Reguin.
In 2015, Stanley and Reguin began looking for a shop that could perform the FANS 1/A upgrade. They needed a vendor capable of outfitting the Falcon with controller-pilot data link communications and ADS-B In and Out. But the shop also had to be able to do it in the shortest amount of downtime, at a competitive cost and before the deadline.
In 2015, Banker Steel joined NBAA, and attending the association’s convention gave Stanley a better idea of how to get the FANS 1/A upgrade done.
“I talked to all the vendors that pertained to our airplane. That’s the beauty of the NBAA show: [the exhibitors] have the cockpit layouts all set up so you can see exactly what you’re going to get. There were options everywhere.”
Headquartered on Lynchburg Regional Airport (LYH) in Lynchburg, VA
One Dassault Falcon 900B
Two pilots, plus a CEO who flies